Parkrose Middle School had a most interesting—and interested—guest just after Thanksgiving when Governor Kate Brown stopped by for a presentation put on by Google. Though it was geared toward the sixth graders in the room, the Google CS First Roadshow presentation seemed to catch the governor’s attention and had her enthusiastically joining in with the children as a participant.
CS First is an initiative by Google meant to expand interest in computer science (that’s what the CS stands for) at a younger age in students, while also expanding access to curriculum and instruction tools to create new computer science professionals. Using the MIT-created coding language Scratch to teach coding concepts to kids, CS First is meant to encourage kids to start clubs led by school and/or community members and explore coding and general computer science concepts together, but not necessarily in class. Google provides free curriculum, projects, guidance and organizational tools that are meant to be taken by teachers and students and used to learn and create still more.
Parkrose Middle School Principal Annette Sweeney introduced the two-person presentation team from Google, who led the students in coding exercises. She also spoke to the Mid-county Memo about the event and the school’s push for computer science. “It’s right in line with what our sixth-grade students are learning right now. They’re already using Scratch and starting to use Google’s CS First,” said Sweeney of the students’ familiarity with the concepts being bandied about the room, many of which possibly went over the heads of some of the adults present.
“Obviously, computer science is a field we need more people to go into. We need—as educators—to be doing a good job in preparing [the students] for that future, and we’ve been really focused as a district in that area,” said Sweeney before crediting computer science teacher, Sean Patrick Higgins, with largely arranging the visit from the large Google contingent. “I had a contact with the Oregon Computer Science Teacher’s Association, which has contacts with the governor and Google,” says Higgins of how the presentation came about. Google was looking for a school where they could showcase their CS First curriculum that had preferably had some contact with it in some way before. Higgins used CS First at his previous position (he spent seven years at SEI Academy in Portland) and from there, Parkrose became the host of the event.
“It’s an intro-to-coding language that uses block-based or color-based coding instead of text,” says Higgins of the advantages of Scratch and the CS First approach; “It makes it easier to focus on the logic, rather than the syntax—the grammar of the language.” While Higgins spoke, the presenters from Google lead the students in using the color blocks to create their own small program, with interaction and animation, right then and there. Governor Brown was among the rapt students sitting at attention to the presentation and participating in the creation of an app. After that she took some questions from the students present and asked some questions of them in return.
Two young and enthusiastic presenters fronted the team from Palo Alto, along with Google representative Darcy Nothnagle and a squadron of crewmembers running everything from A/V to security. The presenters walked the students through coding their own animation while stopping to engage them about their own experiences coding and attempting to pique their interest in the idea of working or playing in computer code. Nothnagle then spoke alongside Governor Brown at the end of the presentation.
“By the year 2020, there will be a million unfilled jobs in the technology industry,” said Nothnagle, “and we know that for K–12, only about 10 percent of schools offer those programs.” That’s one of the reasons having a program like CS First gets such a big public push like this was a big win for the school district and brought out the Governor for a visit.
Governor Brown did raise some eyebrows in the room when speaking at the end of the event. She added an A to the now famous STEM acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, spelling STEAM.
“I think it’s important to include arts and music as part of STEM,” said Governor Brown, “It’s the arts that provide the creativity, the innovation, that provide a wonderful backdrop to coding. Oregon is truly a small business state, and the small businesses that come up with these new creative ideas—and I really do think that art and music play a role.” Adding “arts” (which includes everything from English to History) to STEM would basically make the umbrella term now include everything except physical education and somewhat defeat the purpose of having a specific term in the first place. But it’s clear there is still a focus on computer science happening in Parkrose, whether at the governor’s behest or not.
“Voters in some districts have passed bond measures that enable the districts to implement new technologies. So, it’s a really great opportunity,” said Governor Brown of where the funding for such programs comes from and what Google’s interest is. “I think what [Google’s] doing is providing an open door to future employees.”
“A lot of these students won’t need to go to college—they’ll be able to get good-paying jobs in designing and coding, if they have the training, post-high school,” said Governor Brown before quickly adding, “Of course, if they want to go to college, we want to make sure that we make that happen.”